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The Spurs are still in search of a vocal leader

With all their veteran leadership leaving, the Spurs are having to deal with a problem many saw coming.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After losing four respected veterans since the start of the 2020-21 season in LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and especially Patty Mills, everyone knew a new leader would have to emerge for a young San Antonio Spurs squad entering rebuilding mode. While everything initially seemed fine after a relatively strong start to the season, things have gotten rough during their first extended losing streak, and the players are pointing to singular problem behind it: communication.

During their early “success” — complete with four wins and several close losses to contenders that had the team appearing better than their record indicated — communication didn’t appear to be an issue. Viewers could hear the players talking through the television, everyone was where they needed to be on defense, and they appeared to be having fun. However, during their current six-game losing streak, it has been the opposite. The once vaunted top-10 defense has looked lost, games are no longer being kept close, and nobody’s happy.

After their first truly “disappointing” loss of the season to a similarly struggling Minnesota Timberwolves squad a week ago, the players called a players-only meeting, which the Spurs’ most veteran but also newest player, Thaddeus Young, described in detail.

“The Minnesota game, we didn’t put out the effort that we should have put out. Coach told us that coming into the locker room, that we got our butts kicked. Obviously, you take an L, it’s always a bad thing, but the one thing that came out from it was we took that butt whooping, and we went back into the locker room, we sat down, we talked for 20, 30 minutes, the whole team, everybody wants to voice their issues, their points. Everybody put it on the table, everybody talked.”

One of the biggest complaints aired out in the meeting has been player communication on defense, and Young isn’t the only Spur who has mentioned it this week as the team has tacked on two more losses since then. Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson have as well, so it’s clear that’s the main problem the team is trying to hash out. It’s not surprising, since it’s been a visible problem on the court with players failing to provide help defense, multiple defenders going to cover the same player, and backcourt cuts going unnoticed.

Of course, the question now is who is that player to help lead them out of the wilderness? After losing all their veterans last season, someone was going to have to step up. Young would be an obvious contender as the team’s most veteran player, and while he’s trying to do his part, he’s still the newest member of the squad, and his lack of playing time since Jakob Poeltl returned means he can only communicate so much from the bench.

Murray is the longest-tenured Spur and their best player so far this season, but he is more of a lead-by-example type. (And that’s fine, so was Tim Duncan.) The same can be said for Derrick White, so that leaves two viable contenders: Johnson and Devin Vassell. Johnson is a starter and has that energizer attitude that Mills was known for (he even earned praise from one of the league’s biggest leaders in Draymond Green at the Olympics), but again, is he actually talking on the court beyond the occasional yell after a big play?

That brings us to Vassell. Young mentioned that during that players-only meeting, the second-year forward was the one who tried to take over the leadership role.

“Coach walked out, and we all kind of- well, actually Dev stepped up and took the floor, which is great for a young guy. He said, ‘Come on, let’s try to figure this thing out. Let’s talk about it. Let’s put everything out on the table.’ That’s what you want from the young guys. I could do it, but at the end of the day, you want these younger guys to start stepping up. I think he did a really good job of kind of orchestrating and then getting guys to start speaking and really voicing their issues and voicing their points. That’s the first stage of growth and signs of, everybody wants to win.”

This is great to see from Vassell, who has been an emerging bright spot for the Spurs amidst the darkness, but he’s still just a second-year player coming off the bench, so how much pull does he actually have at this point? Plus, while it has been mentioned that he is trying to be a locker room leader, similar to Johnson, it is unclear how much he’s actually talking on the court.

In the end, this is not a surprising problem early in the season. It’s one many saw coming with the loss of basically all of the team’s veteran leadership and courting such a young squad, along with the lack of a go-to, consistent scorer. That being said, just because it was known problem coming in doesn’t mean a solution shouldn’t actively be sought. That’s just part of the rebuilding process and something the young team needs to work out. Who steps up and how quickly they do it will say a lot going forward.